Football has been and always will be awash with tags to describe players and teams. Whether it be Arsenal's 'Invincible' side in 2003/04, the latest wonderkid to have the world talking, or most recently Manchester City earning the name 'Centurions' after being the first team to earn 100 points in the Premier League era.
The one that arguably carries the greatest burden, however, is the phrase 'golden generation'. Used to describe a group of players of a similar age and ability who many believe have the capacity to win trophies and earn universal acclaim in the process, players can either rise the levels people expect, or fall due to the unwavering pressure.
For England in 2006, it would unfortunately be the latter. With many people believing the squad managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson would be the countries first since 1966 to win the World Cup, the 18th edition of football's greatest trophy provide a similar, heartbreaking narrative to previous tournaments for the Three Lions.
While Adam Crozier might not be a household name to many, he was the chief executive of the Football Association from 2000 until 2002, and it would be him who branded that crop of players as the 'golden generation' during his tenure.
A man whose background stemmed from work in business and the media without any prior experience in football, it was seen by many as the commercialisation of a national team which put an extra layer of unnecessary pressure on a team that big things were already expected of. such was the calibre of players England had produced.
The core of the squad in question had the talent revered by many a national team with the likes of Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney to name but a few. Although successful exits at the quarter final stages in 2002 and again at Euro 2004 meant time was running out for this cohort to deliver.
Despite topping their qualifying group for 2006, it was far from a convincing. Finishing a point ahead of Poland in Group 6, Eriksson's side only scored more than two goals in a game once, while a humbling defeat to Northern Ireland suggested the shine could be taken off this golden group of players. Yet with their place in Germany confirmed, an air of confidence lingered to suggest it could be England's time.
🏴 England's 2006 World Cup squad:— bet365 (@bet365) May 23, 2018
- Robinson, James, Carson.
- Neville, Cole, Ferdinand, Terry, Campbell, Carragher, Bridge.
- Gerrard, Beckham, Lampard, Cole, Hargreaves, Jenas, Carrick, Downing, Lennon.
- Rooney, Owen, Walcott, Crouch.
👀 Not bad. pic.twitter.com/sNjeYS90iM
Although Paul Scholes was absent from the 2006 squad having confirmed his retirement from international football after Euro 2004, England's squad still appeared to be one of the strongest on paper, includeding Premier League winners, Champions League winners, finalists and semi finalists.
In truth however, despite the plethora of domestic honours accumulated with club sides, England's tournament failed to get going in Germany. A second minute own goal from Paraguay's Carlos Gamarra would be enough to claim three points in their opening game of Group B, before two goals in the final 10 minutes helped England to a 2-0 win against World Cup debutantes Trinidad and Tobago.
Having qualified for the last 16, England looked set to have done so with nine points after Gerrard's 85th minute strike appeared to have secured a 2-1 win against Sweden in the final group game, but for Henrik Larsson's 90th minute equaliser. While a trademark Beckham free kick edged them past Ecuador and into another quarter final against Portugal.
Losing out to the Portuguese at the same stage two years prior at the Euro's, revenge was on the mind for England in Gelsenkirchen, although that would fail to materialise. In a game remembered for Rooney's red card for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho - sealed by a wink from Cristiano Ronaldo - England would succumb to penalties once more, ending their World Cup campaign in rather acrimonious fashion.
A third successive exit at the quarter final stage in major tournaments would prove to be a catalyst for change after the World Cup, with Eriksson standing down from his position as manager, while Beckham relinquished the captaincy and was soon to be frozen out by the incoming Steve McClaren. Yet questions remained after England's performance in Germany.
Many people have and continue to speculate the reason behind the failings of England's 'Golden Generation' in 2006 and in general under a Swede who was meant to bring success to a nation that had been bereft of it for so long.
One school of thought was that domestic success and intense rivalries at club level had hindered England's chances of success, with Ferdinand himself claiming:
"It killed that England team, that generation. One year we would have been fighting Liverpool to win the league, another year it would be Chelsea. So I was never going to walk into the England dressing room and open up to Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry or Joe Cole at Chelsea, or Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher at Liverpool."
Scholes offered a more blunt opinion of England's failings, believing "most of them are too selfish" when players donned the famous white strip, while Owen Hargreaves, a player much maligned throughout his international career, suggested those in charge had failed to take advantage of the players at their disposal, stating:
"I think we failed Scholes, Gerrard and Lampard. We failed them by not building around them."
While England's failure to win a major tournament with that group of players is something that still haunts members of that squad, with Lampard stating:
"I felt I'd let my team-mates and my country down," the former Chelsea midfielder believes Crozier's now infamous tag didn't help matters, claiming:
"It is good to have pressure on you as individuals and on the team as a whole. But calling us a golden generation, it was almost as if people were waiting for us to fail."
Golden generations come and go, but perhaps the problem for England was having to compete against nations who had also produced players with the ambition of success on the international stage. Finalists in 2006, Italy and France weren't exactly lacking in world class talent, while Spanish dominance would prove to be just around the corner.
For England however, there seemed to be a sense of entitlement preempting the supposed 'golden generation' suggesting the names alone deserved success without matching that expectation with performance, which is why a comment made by Gary Neville resonates so profoundly, offering a damning conclusion to the matter if not a definitive answer as to why.
As another member of that generation, he explained: "We should be disappointed. We should feel regret. We should feel pained that we never won a tournament. On the other hand if I look at teams who were winning trophies in that era there is no escaping the conclusion: we were not good enough."